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Africa – Not as Bad As it Seems

April 9, 2009

Yes there are trouble spots. The humanitarian crisis in Darfur is about to get worse. Zimbabwe’s economy is still in shambles and its’ citizens suffer from repressive security forces. There will still continue to be outbursts of violence in the Eastern Congo. And Somalia – the archetypal failed state – is home to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

But, as Liberian President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, reminds us today, most of Africa is a success story. Johnson-Sirleaf provides some quick statistics:

“Economic growth rates regularly exceed 5 percent in many nations. Since 2000, 34 million more African children are in school. More than 2 million Africans are on lifesaving HIV/AIDS medicines. Malaria deaths have been halved in Rwanda and Ethiopia, and the disease has been virtually eradicated in Zanzibar. Poverty rates are falling fast, from 58 to 51 percent across the continent in just six years, according to the World Bank.”

The key to these gains, according to Johnson-Sirleaf, has been better African leadership, accountability and increasingly effective development assistance. Johnson-Sirleaf’s commentary comes amidst pressures on the west to reduce foreign assistance commitments abroad, as well as a new critique of development assistance from an unlikely source – Dambisa Moyo, an Oxford educated African economist.

Moyo says development aid has failed to lift Africa out of poverty. Rather, African countries need access to markets, trade with China, and microfinance. While I haven’t read Moyo’s entire critique, good sustainable development is typically accomplished through a combination of trade and aid.

And good governance. Without good and accountable leaders, both aid and trade will fail. As Johnson-Sirleaf notes, “today, more than 20 African countries are democracies, up from just three in the 1980’s.” Liberia is one of these success stories. Along with peacekeepers, aid has been critical to consolidating the peace in a country that suffered from instability and violence just seven years ago.

In fact, Liberia should serve as a reminder that aid is not only critical to poverty reduction and meeting health needs, but also keeping the peace after conflict. But as Johnson-Sirleaf reminds us, reducing aid amidst an economic recession could undue these gains. As a new report by Action Aid suggests that shrinking markets and reduced aid flows will result in a “10% pay-cut” for the continent, the West must not back down on its aid commitments.

As I noted last month, we either pay now or pay more later.

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